October 24, 2014

Friday Review: The Monuments Men

The story of the Monuments Men - a group of about 350 Allied soldiers who were tasked with safeguarding and liberating looted art during World War II - is fascinating and a part of the war that's frequently been overlooked.  That, thankfully, changed last year with the George Clooney flick, even though it didn't turn out to be the awards season champ it seemed designed to be.  The movie a fictionalized account of the story laid in the book by Robert Edsel.  For such an interesting story, it's a shame it doesn't get a better telling.

Edsel makes an admission right at the beginning of the book that doesn't bode well:
I have taken the liberty of creating dialogue for continuity, but in no instance does it concern matters of substance and in all cases it is based on extensive documentation.
I admire them for being up front about this, but it immediately calls into question what comes after.  More problematic, however, is that if the dialogue doesn't concern "matters of substance" then why include it at all?  In the end, the dialog doesn't add much drama or tension to the book, which is otherwise sorely lacking.  It's both an odd choice and a missed opportunity.

Perhaps one reason I'm particularly down on the dialogue is that in the Audible version, the reader tries to do most of them in accents and fails miserably.  I've rarely cringed while listening to an audiobook, but did so time after time with this one.  It was particularly jarring because early on when all the speakers were Americans, there didn't seem to be any accents at all (this changed, unfortunately).  The cliched French and German that came later, therefore, really grated on the ears.

Beyond that, part of the problem with the book is that the Monuments Men tend to blend together until it's hard to remember who's who.  They have very similar backgrounds and face the same kind of obstacles so that none of them really stand out.  In fact, the biggest help I had in keeping them separate in my head was to picture their counterparts in the movie (fictional characters based on actual people).

In fact, the two most memorable people in the book (aside from Hitler, Eisenhower, etc.) are ones that don't quite fit the "Monuments Men" label.  One was Rose Valland, a French woman who spent the war in the midst of Nazi Paris keeping track of plundered art, then became the key figure in tracking it down and recapturing it.  She, obviously, was not a man (nor American, which is the primary focus of the book and film).

The other is Harry Ettlinger, who was a man, but unlike the more sophisticated, educated, and high class art types who became Monuments Men, was just a private who wound up doing his part.  It's his back story that makes that part compelling.  Ettlinger was a Jew, born in Karlshrue and forced to flee before the war.  He was, we are told, the last person to have a bat mitzvah in that city's synagogue before it was destroyed.  That he returned to Germany an American GI, helping right the cultural wrong perpetrated by the Nazis (including a fulfilling personal mission) is the best part of the book.

The other problem is that, once things get going, the activities of the Monuments Men are pretty redundant.  During the initial periods after Allied landings in Italy and France, they are tasked with keeping valuable buildings and works from being carelessly destroyed.  Important, no doubt, but not that thrilling once we're past the initial instance.  Things pick up a bit once they're on the trial of looted art, but those trails mostly lead to a series of mines in Germany and Austria where the Germans stashed the loot.  The mere fact that untold treasures are stuffed down mines, much less the challenges of getting them out, are interesting but, again, become a bit redundant.

In the middle of this section comes an interesting, if not altogether relevant, diversion.  The most impressive of the salt-mine stashes was found in the Austrian town of Altaussee.  The Nazi governor of the area planned to blow the whole mine up, destroying all the looted artwork rather than let it fall into Allied hands (all based on an order from Hitler that may, or may not, have been rescinded and/or modified).  A group of locals managed to trick him into delaying the plan long enough for the Allies to arrive.  It's a neat story and, from Edsel's telling, one that's been untold in its true depth, for years.  However, it doesn't really have much to do with the Monuments Men, as they arrived after the drama was done.

But most of that is nitpicking.  What Edsel has done is to celebrate not just a group of people who did important (and often overlooked) work.  He notes just how unusual this focus on preserving and repatriating art was and what a worthy endeavor it was.  Armies just didn't do such things.

Nor do they much anymore.  Edsel wonders why we haven't had similar operations (at least in terms of scope) in future wars.  Sadly, I think it's pretty easy to figure out.  Edsel frequently refers to the Monuments Men's goal as no less than the salvation, not just of particular cultural artifacts, but of "our" culture in general.  He even goes so far as to call the Altaussee plot one of the great turning points of civilization.  So why, then, were there no Monuments Men units in Iraq or Vietnam or Korea?

Simple - those places aren't part of "our" culture.  The Nazis, after all, were still Europeans and thus part of a long heritage that extended to the United States.  Not so much some others. It's not for nothing that the Monuments Men effort was confined to Europe, with no mention of the Pacific theater.  Nor should it be lost that the genesis of the group that became the Monuments Men was concerns about protecting American art in case of invasion.  We care most about ourselves and those who remind us of ourselves (Bender was onto something), whether that is how it should be or not.

Edsel himself has an interesting story (according to Wikipedia).  He grew up in Texas and made his money in (what else) oil and gas drilling.  He sold out to Union Pacific in the 1990s and moved to Europe.  It was there he first became interested in the subject of the Nazis and art during the war.  He's done yeoman work to bring this issue to national attention and clearly cares deeply about it.  None of the criticisms of his writing should minimize that.

The Details
The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History
by Robert M. Edsel, with Bret Witter
Published 2009

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